What’s a Carbon Footprint and Does Yours Matter? – CNET

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When you hear about the many dire effects of human-caused climate change — boiling summers, rising seas, intensifying natural disasters — it’s normal to think, “What can I do to help?”

One answer you often hear is to lower your personal “carbon footprint.” But what exactly is a carbon footprint, how do you measure it and what impact does it have?

Experts say that totaling up all of the carbon emissions associated with your everyday life can be a useful way to understand your contribution to global warming, and prioritize changes that can reduce it. But there are also limitations to how much an individual can do. Any talk of carbon footprints should center on the countries, corporations and industries that account for most of the carbon emissions, which largely come from burning fossil fuels. And according to some, personal carbon footprints are just a distraction from much more effective climate action people can take.

So here’s what you need to know about carbon footprints, and how they might be relevant to your life.

What is a carbon footprint?

“A carbon footprint is really the greenhouse gas emissions associated with a defined activity,” said Philippe Pernstich, the founding footprinting lead at Minimum, a carbon accounting firm.

Apply that to your everyday life, and a carbon footprint includes the emissions generated from your home (think heating and electricity), your transportation (including transit, cars and airplanes), the food you consume and the products you buy.

Measuring a carbon footprint is useful for people “really to get a sense within those broad categories, where do they have the biggest impact, and within each category, how do their potential choices affect the carbon footprint?” Pernstich said. For example, choosing to take fewer flights, or turning down your home thermostat, could shrink your carbon footprint.

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But individuals’ carbon footprints can’t compare to those of companies, industries and entire countries, which are also measuring and, in some cases, trying to reduce their impacts. The top three emitters worldwide are China, the US and the EU. Per capita, the US and Russia have the highest greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. 

How do I calculate my carbon footprint?

Don’t worry. You won’t need to break out a notebook or calculator here. The easiest way to calculate your carbon footprint is using an online tool.

“There are some really easy ones, they’ll ask you 10 questions maybe, and give you a broad indication,” Pernstich said. But if you want more detail, there are trackers and apps that allow you to be much more granular. “It’s how geeky you want to get about it.”

The Nature Conservancy and the Environmental Protection Agency both offer calculators, which are on the broader end of the spectrum. The app Commons zooms in on the climate impact of your shopping, while the app Adva not only measures your footprint but gives recommendations on reducing it.

Of course, these tools are only as good as the information you put into them. And estimations for the carbon footprint of consumer goods, in particular, are not always accurate, according to Pernstich. “That is actually really tricky to do,” he said.

What’s the problem with carbon footprints?

There’s nothing wrong with working to reduce your personal carbon emissions. 

But some experts argue that personal carbon footprints distract people from demanding larger forms of systemic change from governments and corporations. In fact, the very idea of a personal carbon footprint was first introduced by oil companies themselves in glossy marketing campaigns.

“The question is around personal responsibility, and also the ability to have an impact,” Pernstich said. “The individual isn’t going to solve climate change.” 

Auden Schendler, a climate activist and author of the book Getting Green Done, said that personal carbon footprints are largely a distraction that protects the status quo. “It takes the focus off what matters, which is global emissions, and puts it on the individual,” he said.

Point in fact: While we’re all busy judging each other about what kinds of cars we do (or don’t) drive, fossil fuel consumption worldwide continues to rise

And even as many corporations embrace the idea of reducing their own carbon footprint, Schendler argues that it can often result in little more than good PR. “None of [their] actions are disruptive,” he said.

A person out of frame plugging in an electric vehicle.

A certain level of carbon emissions is baked into society, but less carbon-intense choices exist.

[Genesis] – Korawee Ratchapakdee/Getty Images

Does my carbon footprint matter for tackling climate change?

There remains some debate among environmentalists about how much individual actions matter in the effort to slow climate change. 

Again, measuring your carbon footprint can be useful to understand where your biggest impacts are, and where to focus your limited energy. But remember that the responsibility for mitigating climate change doesn’t rest on your shoulders.

“A lot of the impacts that we have — in many cases, we have limited choices,” Pernstich said. Sure, you can choose to buy one product over another, but we don’t always have the information to know which is better. And you usually don’t get to choose where your electricity comes from, and whether it’s being generated by fossil fuels. “We don’t have huge amounts of control over the carbon intensity of that,” Pernstich explained.

Schendler added that, historically, consumers haven’t had the power to determine which options were available in the first place. “You didn’t ask for an SUV that would destroy the world, you asked for mobility,” he said. 

In other words: “We operate within a society that kind of dictates a certain level of [carbon] intensity,” Pernstich said.

So measuring and lowering your carbon footprint can help you feel empowered, but don’t stop there, Schendler said. It’s way more important, and impactful, to become an engaged citizen agitating for climate solutions. That might look like running for local government, or writing letters to the editor to advocate for a specific policy. 

“It’s effectively irrelevant whether we’re tracking our emissions, because all of that time and effort ought to now be thrown at changing the political system, actually reducing emissions,” Schendler said. “We basically lost this climate battle, so this is like tracking your blood loss as you’re bleeding to death. Maybe you should do something different, like compress the wound.”

How can I lower my carbon footprint?

While individuals reducing their carbon footprint has only a small impact in the big picture of global emissions, individual action can be empowering. And many individuals making lower-carbon choices can add up. If you’re looking to reduce your carbon footprint, take a look in these areas.

Transportation: Does an electric vehicle fit your lifestyle? They have lower lifetime emissions than internal combustion engine vehicles. Biking or taking transit are lower carbon than driving yourself. Flying less is another option.

Home energy: When it comes time to replace an appliance, you can swap it with an electric one. For example, you can get an electric heat pump to replace a gas furnace. You can make your home energy efficient. You might also consider rooftop solar panels and generate your own clean electricity to power those new electric appliances.

Food: In general, eating more plants and less meat results in a lower-carbon diet, according to the United Nations. 


Are carbon footprints useful?

They can be if you’re interested in reducing your personal carbon emissions. But remember that you can only do so much, and your time is probably better spent getting politically involved in large-scale climate solutions.

How can I reduce my carbon footprint?

It depends on your individual situation. Taking fewer airplane flights, driving less, and electrifying the appliances in your home are some of the common ways to reduce your carbon footprint.

CNET’s Andrew Blok contributed to this report.

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